MBA vs. Master of Finance degree vs. CPA vs. CFA — what’s best?

Career, MBA topics

I often get questions from readers like the following one, which ask me about whether to choose an MBA vs. another degree like a Master of Finance, or even between an certification like a or a :

    Example 1: I recently came across your blog when I was trying to learn how to use Vlookup and Pivot table, and wanted to thank you for making it so simple to understand. I also began reading some of your other posts and see that you have a lot of knowledge about business education and the corporate world. I’m currently a senior in economics at University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and I will be graduating this June. I want to become a financial analyst, but I haven’t been able to find a job. So I’m considering applying for a Masters in Finance at University of San Francisco. What is your opinion about such a program? To me the upside of the program is that it’s only a year long and it takes recent graduates with no significant work experience. However, University of San Francisco is not a very prestigious school and I’m not sure how much a Masters in Finance will improve my chances of finding a job. The program is very expensive ($40,000) and I don’t want to spend that kind of money if employers wont consider it to be important. Thank you once again for your blog and I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Example 2: I’m a MBA finance option student in Alabama, US. First I would like to thank you for all materials that you post on your web-site. They are very helpful. Sometimes if I don’t understand anything from my textbooks i go to experiglot.com. They are easy to understand.

    I have noticed that in US if you want to be employed every employer requires you a certification like CPA, CFO even if you want to train somebody in the gym you really need to be certified. I would like to know what kind of certification exist for financiers?! I don’t have any working experience in finance field. But I have a 5 years IT manager experience. And I don’t think that it will be useful to be financially certified. I would really appreciate your help !!

Although the reason readers are asking about the value of an MBA or similar degree or certification differ, the examples above are pretty representative of the reasons that people decide to enroll in these programs.

There’s no one right answer to the questions above, but in general, I tend to advise people to go for an MBA at the best program they can get into for several reasons, at least here in the US:

  1. Unless you are 100% sure that you are going into Finance, an MBA will usually give you much more flexibility since it’s a general program.
  2. Employers are “trained” to recognize an MBA degree, whereas other degrees, like a Master of Finance, Master in Management Science, or even a Master in Public Administration tend to be lesser-known degrees.
  3. You can always supplement an MBA with a CFA or CPA certification to give you greater “credibility” if needed, and if you’re dedicated into going into Finance or Accounting.
  4. You never know if you will switch jobs or industries in the future (voluntarily or forced to, out of circumstance), and an MBA will again give you more flexibility of options.

Of course, there are times when you may want to get a more specialized degree for whatever reason. But in my experience, businesses and recruiters tend to pigeonhole candidates faster than ideal (for example, by scanning keywords in a resume), and someone with a Master in Finance degree will likely be overlooked for entry-level marketing or operations jobs, whereas someone with an MBA degree may be more likely to be considered. In short, the universe of options afforded to you by an MBA is much wider and the paths to get to a specialization much more numerous than if you choose to do another degree or certification.

MBA programs are notoriously expensive, however, and you want to make sure to choose the right one. I have an article I wrote a few years back about that’s still applicable even now.

Got a different opinion or perspective? Feel free to leave a comment!

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13 Feedbacks on "MBA vs. Master of Finance degree vs. CPA vs. CFA — what’s best?"

Guy G.

Hey,
I had never really understood the difference between an MBA and an MVA. They all seemed to be so well educated and advanced, that I just shied away from learning more.
Thanks for opening my eyes a little bit.
Cheers,
Guy



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Soft

I really enjoyed this and you give some very good advice. Excelent article, Thank you for sharing.



David H.

Well written article. I started getting my CPA fresh out of college working for a public accounting firm. I saw the CPA as something to establish credibility and I just finished it this past February. However, last fall I left accounting, and even though I had a degree in business from undergrad I decided to go back for the MBA exactly for the reasons listed. The MBA adds much more breadth than depth. Granted it is very expensive, but the ~30k in student loan debt is giving me an education and resume highlight to last a lifetime whereas my friends are ~30k in debt from buying a fancy car fresh out of undergrad.

An MS in finance i think is a waist unless you’re planning to go the Ph D route. Otherwise, just do the CFA and get an analyst gig.



Accountant Marketing

I think it really depends on what you are looking for. If you want your tax done then you should go see a CPA or an EA. Most MBAs don’t have experience in these areas.



Virtual CPA

Ask yourself why you are looking for a professional in the first place. If it’s tax planning and tax preparation then go for the CPA. For overall financial advice, seek out the MBA.



Real Estate Bird Dog

I agree…it depends on what you are looking for. CPAs will always be the best when it comes to tax planning and tax strategies.



Land Investment

Go with the CPA. There just aren’t many CFA around and many work in investment banking which won’t do you much good.



Debt Cancellation

Use a CPA or EA before you go with an MBA. An MBA is a great generalist, but they won’t do much if you are self-employed.



CA

Very good questions, but I would like to provide a different perspective. Firstly, MBA is a generalist degree I think everyone can agree on that, but from my experience a lot of the material is based on soft-skills, which can be easily obtained through other means (i.e. on the job as an example). There are always exceptions, but from my experience working at top financial companies employees do move around, but having an MBA doesn’t mean that one can easily move about to another position that is completely different without the required experience (the MBA degree would have little weight as I have seen individuals with regular Masters degree do just fine, but with solid work experience in whatever area). In short, I think that the focus for actual job seekers is to gain a solid internship or real job experience with a decent bachelor first before getting into an MBA and hoping that things will come together from there. I have nothing against MBAs, but I’m getting tired of hearing solid recommendations about seeking an MBA when realistically you will not learn that much compared to a specialized Masters (take Finance as an example) and will most likely end up asking someone with a Masters degree in Finance (like me) for a job because the skills you’ve learned didn’t make you stand out. My last boss was a Columbia MBA and it was borderline embarrassing the lack of basic things he didn’t know. It got to the point, where I had to tell him not to do anything because he will make my work look sub-par.

I find it convenient when MBAs sell that it is better to have breath than depth conversation when MBAs are compared to other Master programmes, which frankly is completely not true. At the end, what counts is what you know. You should think about what sets you apart from the other millions of MBA holders. On the prestige piece, again, do what you think can get you the best knowledge and the best branding. I have observed many individuals from tier 1 / 2 universities do just fine (i.e. CFOs and CIOs) because their work skills are amazing even with a meh MBA.

There is no one-size-fits-all, but whatever you do be good at it, employers will appreciate it and will reward it if you know your “stuff.” Good luck!



Sunny

Excellent feedback CA. Very helpful. Depth over breadth for sure. :)



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